The costs of winning hearts and minds
American media is struggling to adjust to shifting audiences and technology. Imagine what it must be like for the US government's broadcast behemoth, which is dealing with similar issues on a global, multilingual scale. The stakes are high for the US.
Because Uncle Sam's radio and television programs are broadcast to other countries, many Americans might not know about them. In diplomatic speak, the shows fall under the heading of "public diplomacy" – US promotion of its interests abroad by informing foreign audiences.
This media diplomacy is vital to America's national security, especially as the US tries to win "hearts and minds" in the war on terror. Ditto because of its battered world reputation.
But effectively carrying it off is not easy. Just as commercial news outfits are cutting budgets in "old media" while trying to lure a new generation of tech-savvy consumers, so is the cost- conscious Broadcast Board of Governors that oversees the government's international media efforts. Those include newcomers such as Alhurra, US television programming in Arabic, and oldercomers such as Radio and TV Martí, aimed at Cuba.
The board wants to improve the reach to "critical audiences" in places such as the Middle East and North Korea. And it wants to move away from its mainstay technology of shortwave radio, which it says is declining in global use, to increasingly popular but vastly more expensive television, Internet, and FM.
To help do that, it's proposing controversial cuts at its largest network, Voice of America, which reaches 115 million people weekly. That's sparked protest from a bipartisan group of 11 former VOA directors (including John Hughes, a columnist for this paper and a former Monitor editor).
The ex-directors implore Congress to ignore the board's suggested cuts at VOA, which got its start when it broadcast via shortwave to Nazi Germany in 1942. "The news may be good. The news may be bad. We shall tell you the truth," the announcer declared. Its charter says it must deliver accurate, objective, and comprehensive news – the only credible way to project US values.
Now on the VOA chopping block: Its main English-language news and feature service, which feeds VOA radio and TV worldwide; all services in six other languages, including Cantonese; and VOA radio (but not TV) in languages that serve the Balkans, India, and Russia.
VOA's budget overseers are right to think about new markets and technologies.
But in the scheme of things, the ex-directors' request that lawmakers preserve $26 million in proposed cuts is not a lot to keep an estimated 18 million listeners in the VOA fold; to retain its main service in English (spoken by a quarter of the world's population, after all); to continue native language services in still shaky democracies such as Georgia and Ukraine; and to keep VOA radio going in Russia, which could easily pull the plug on VOA TV. Meanwhile, about 300 million people, many in Asia, still listen to shortwave radio.
US media diplomacy is attempting a major transition that, if done right, will be expensive and take awhile. It can't be paid for by cuts to a program built on shortwave that costs a mere 2.5 cents per listener per week.